Over the past week, Americans have heard considerable blowback over President Donald Trump’s proposal to privatize the nation’s air-traffic control system. Trump’s plan would put the system under a nonprofit board rather than the Federal Aviation Administration and — as Trump puts it — speed the modernization of “an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn’t work.
Yet almost everyone who knows what they’re talking about is already on board with change.
That includes most of the nation’s airports and the powerful airline industry association. It also, surprisingly, includes the airline pilots association and air-traffic controllers union — despite the fact that modernization will almost certainly reduce the number of human beings required to keep American aviation safe and secure.
Why? Because the situation is dire. The number of planes in the sky keeps growing, and the stress on the nation’s airports with it. Yet the nation’s current air-traffic control system still relies on antiquated World War II-era radar and radio communications. The trade group for America’s airlines estimates that flight delays due to antiquated equipment cost the nation roughly $12 billion a year.
As other nations modernize, this country’s forward progress has been strangled by bureaucracy and short-sighted budget shenanigans. Putting the system under a nonprofit board could cut through much of that red tape. And the United States has plenty of experience to follow — more than 50 nations including Canada, Great Britain, Germany and Australia have already shifted their air-traffic control systems at least partially away from government.
The path to adopting the so-called “NextGen” air-traffic control system isn’t simple. Planes must be outfitted with the latest equipment; new systems must be installed at the nation’s airports; and controllers and pilots will have to be retrained. Flipping the switch to a satellite-based system has serious implications for smaller airlines and private pilots.
Rolling out NextGen would mean a more responsive, accurate system that allows more planes to be stacked more closely together and fly more direct routes, reducing fuel costs and flight times, and allowing for more efficient use of existing runways.
Among the serious critics of Trump’s plan are those who say the United States is already making adequate progress toward implementing NextGen. They also worry about the structure of the new nonprofit’s board, which would almost certainly include heavy airline representation. Airlines aren’t exactly popular or trusted in the United States.
Those concerns can, and should, be carefully addressed in any legislation setting up the new system — and knowledgeable critics should weigh in with their suggestions and concerns. But clinging to the old system won’t work, and Trump is right to kick off his infrastructure-building agenda by reaching for the sky.
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